“I always hear and KNOW “abs are made in the kitchen”… however I would like to know specifically what TO or NOT eat to get those abs. I’m down 70+ lbs but still carry a lot of belly fat. Thanks in advance.” – Monique Salmond

 

Hey Monique!

Great question!  Probably the million dollar question in fact! =)  First off, congrats on your amazing success!  Losing 70+ lbs is amazing!  Clearly you have the dedication required to get the abs you so desire, and I am going to assume anyone else reading this does as well.  So now that that is assumed…let’s get to the nitty gritty stuff here and discuss what may be causing you to hold excess belly fat (surprisingly enough… it may be more than just your nutrition!)

 

1. The amount of body fat you carried in the past – Unfortunately, our body is pretty good at creating new fat cells and filling them up, which is exactly what happens when your body’s fat cells get full.  You start creating new fat cells and filling them up, allowing your body to gain more and more body fat.  However, when you lose body fat and those fat cells empty out, they take approximately 10 years to die according to Kiefer of Dangerously Hardcore.  In the meantime, your body is doing its darndest to fill those fat cells back up.

Basically, if you’ve carried a decent amount of body fat in the past, for at least a while, your body is working against you trying to fill those empty fat cells back up.  That’s not to say that you can’t ever be really lean, but you will have to maintain a certain level of leanness for quite a while before your empty fat cells die, and before your body considers your new, leaner body to be homeostasis.

 

2. Cortisol levels – I am sure that you’ve heard this before, but wacked out cortisol levels can contribute to excess belly fat.  I worked late nights in bars through undergrad and grad school and I literally had abs with a ring of fat around my belly button from my wacky late-night schedule.  Make sure you’re getting to bed at a reasonable hour (preferably close to the same time every night), getting plenty of sleep, and taking 5-10 minutes 1-2x a day to do some deep diaphragmatic breathing and/or meditation. 

You may also want to look into taking an adaptogen like astragalus, ashwagandha, or rhodiola as they can aid the body in adapting to stressful situations.  As for how much and how often, I would consult an Integrative Medicine Doctor or Acupuncturist/Doctor of Oriental Medicine for exact dosages.

 

They don’t call it beauty sleep for nothing. Getting regular, adequate sleep not only helps you feel better, but can help with fat loss as well.

 

3. Genetics – Ahhh genetics.  Like it or not, genetics play a pretty big role in how your body is going to look.  That’s not to say that you can’t “overcome” poor genetics like my good buddy Matt Kroc who used to weigh 118 lbs. his freshman year of high school (and with 6 years of lifting under his belt!), but it will factor into the ease with which you can attain a six-pack.  Let me explain.

My good friend, the beautiful, smart, sexy, and fit Jen Comas Keck has said in previous blog posts that she has to be close to SINGLE DIGIT body fat % in order to see abs while I, on the other hand, can see an outline of abs at 25% body fat, and have pretty darn good definition at 17-18%.  Sounds unfair right?  It is until you consider the fact that Jen has a super-stunning pair of legs and a great bum, (almost regardless of her body fat %) while I carry extra fat in my butt, hips, and thighs, even when my body fat % is in the low teens!

It’s just the difference in the way we carry our body fat.  So keep in mind if you’re like me, you may not have to get extremely lean before your abs make an appearance, but if you’re built more like Jen, you may need to get quite a bit leaner.

 

Progress picture from Friday night, I’m probably ~18% body fat here. You can still see the bit of fat around my belly button from years of  poor sleep patterns though! =(  Need to work on getting more Zzzzz’s!

 

Jen showing off her uber-fit legs and bum (and her GGS Tank!)

 

4. Excessive exercise (specifically excessive aerobic exercise) – 

(The terms “excessive” is subjective of course… to me, if the aerobic exercise you are doing is causing more damage than good, then it’s excessive for you).

Let me also say that I don’t want to completely scare people away from aerobic exercise… especially athletes, many of whom need aerobic training in order to succeed at their sport.  Some aerobic exercise is fine, and actually good for you… for example: walking, light hiking or bike riding, mobility circuits, etc.  It’s the hours and hours of spinning, cranking, running, and step aerobics that often ends up doing more damage than good physique and health-wise. 

At my gym we seem to attract chronic over-exercisers and while they may appear to be in good shape, they are usually exhausted, have dark circles under their eyes, carry excess fat in their abdomen, and appear slightly “aged” in the face.

 

Don’t be like Homer and run even if it makes you miserable. If you enjoy it, DO IT! But know that hours of running every week is NOT the holy grail to finding your abs!

 

We tend to find that the formula for success when it comes to fat loss for the average person is as follows: full-body, heavy strength training 3 days a week, light walking/activity most days of the week, the occasional sprints/anaerobic training (1-2x a week), lots of sleep, good stress management, healthy doses of regular sunshine, and following sound nutrition principles 80-90% of the time.  Speaking of nutrition…

 

5. Nutrition –  Now, onto the nutrition portion of your question… the super simple and super complicated answer is: It depends.  It depends on how much you used to weigh, how much you weigh now, how much body fat you carry, how often you lift, what your lifting/training program looks like, your genetics, how much/long/excessively you’ve dieted in the past, what your hormone profile currently looks like, and much, much more.  That being said, some very general guidelines would be as follows:

  1. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, but comfortable.

  2. Have protein, veggies, and fat at almost every meal (except immediately-post workout).

  3. Have the bulk of your starchy and sugary carbs within a few hours of your weight training workout.

  4. Eat REAL food 90% of the time.  If it didn’t exist when your great-grandparents did, don’t eat it.  OR, if it doesn’t spoil within 7-10 days, don’t eat it (there are exceptions of course, but you get my gist).

  5. Drink plenty of water (at least half your body weight in ounces, more if you’re really active).

  6. Have at least 1 gram of protein per lb. of body weight.  It’s possible to get away with less, much less even… (especially if you engage in intermittent fasting, I’ve noticed), but this is still a good general rule of thumb as most women don’t eat nearly enough protein.

  7. Make sure you’re eating enough.  As an extremely general rough estimate, I find that ~14-15 calories per lb. of body weight is maintenance for women who exercise moderately.  That being said, I’ve stayed lean eating 16-20 calories per lb. of body weight before, so you’ll have to experiment, but if you have no idea where to start, start there.

  8. Try not to dip below 10 calories/lb. of body weight.  If you’re that low and you haven’t been losing body fat, chances are you have some metabolic damage and need to slowly raise your calories by 10% every couple of weeks.

  9. I almost always have my clients cut out gluten, grains, and dairy for at least 30-60 days.  Not only does it force them to get used to eating more meat and vegetables (which is always a good thing!), but after 30-60 days they can add those foods back in and see how they feel. Often times they find that foods containing gluten make them tired, bloated, constipated, or break out in hives/rashes.  This isn’t always the case, but it’s quite common in my clients.  If you don’t have any adverse reactions, then no harm, no foul.  At least you learned something about your body and you probably ended up eating more veggies than you’ve eaten in a while! =)

  10. Find a way of eating that you can live with.  Whether it’s 6 small meals a day, Eat Stop Eat, Leangains, IIFYM (if it fits your macros), 3 big squares a day, or something else, find something that feels doable and DO IT.  An imperfect plan than you follow is much better than a perfect plan that is not adhered to. 

 

There you have it Monique!  Nutrition tips for helping you achieve your abs, plus several other factors that may be holding you back!  Hope this is helpful!

36 Responses to Weekly Reader Question #1: What to eat to get Abs…?

  1. Maria says:

    GREAT article! I’m super excited to hear that fat cells DO eventually disappear (even if it does take 10 years). It’s really interesting to hear the differences in bodyfat and muscles showing between you and Jenn Comas Keck. It DOES almost seem unfair that some people have tiny waists at 25% but I’ve worked hard to get to 19% and still have lovehandles. I’ve cut grains. Can you explain more on the cutting dairy? Is that only to cut the chemical filled dairy? What about the raw milk and farm eggs I eat? Those are ‘clean’ right? Or are you talking about all dairy, no matter how clean?

    Thanks so much for taking the time on this article! So many of us out here follow you girls for inspiration and a reality check!

  2. molly says:

    Maria – Yes it seems unfair, but keep in mind that Jen’s legs are/would be much leaner than mine even if her body fat % were higher. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles and we must deal with the hand we’ve been dealt! =)

    1. It’s a common misconception that eggs fall into the dairy category. They don’t! So eat away! =)

    2. I actually get delicious raw milk from a local farm as well and love it! That being said, I do “lean down” a bit easier without it and usually reserve it for my treat days. Remember that eating for health and eating for leanness aren’t always the same thing. You can be “healthy” without being extremely lean, and you can be extremely lean without being healthy. Try pulling it out for a while and see what happens. One thing to note: I still have heavy whipping cream and real butter and they don’t seem to have an adverse side effects on my leanness levels.

    3. “Clean” is a funny and oft-misused word because there isn’t a good definition for it. I still say it occasionally out of habit, but it’s hard to define. You can say “unprocessed” but then you’re excluding foods like protein powder. You can say low-fat, but that definitely doesn’t always mean “healthy.” You can say low-carb, but there are plenty of higher carb foods that I could consider to be great additions to a nutrition program.

    4. I would try cutting the raw milk for now and see what happens. If you’re adhering to the nutrition principle above and still struggling, it may be time to get your hormones checked. I first got mine checked at age 24, yes 24!! And they were completely whacked out! Just a thought!

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Sean says:

    Man I needed to see this…

    I’m a 20 year old male who regularly lifts and trains MMA, and I was trying to lose fat while eating the maintenance cals for someone 30lbs. more than me.

    If I’ve been dieting hard and chronically in the past (as you mentioned you did in your episode of biojacked), should I just bump up my cals to the level I should be eating and I’ll eventually level out (after some inital weight gain)?

    I’ve been dieting pretty much non-stop for a year and after inital success I’m creeping back up to my old weight. I’m thinking my thyroid/metabolism’s shot.

    • molly says:

      Sean,

      First, congrats on your fat loss! Very commendable! Second, yes it sounds to me like you have suffered some metabolic damage. Remember, your body is always chasing homeostatis… so when you lower calories, your metabolism will eventually slow to compensate. In the meantime, you may lose some body fat (assuming food sources, macros and timing are all on point) but your metabolism will slow down. If you lower them again, again, you may experience some initial fat loss, but your metabolism will slow AGAIN. For some people this happens quickly, while others may experiences several months of fat loss before they stall.

      I would recommend slowly bumping calories up by ~10% every 2-3 weeks and monitor your progress. Remember, the calorie guidelines I gave in the article are VERY ROUGH estimates.

      As a general rule, I don’t like to keep someone in a caloric deficit for longer than 12-16 weeks without a 2-4 week re-feed. I also like to put in periodic smaller 6-18 hour re-feeds during that 12-16 weeks as well.

      We write about this in our EBook: Mad-Opus: A Modified Warrior Nutrition Manual (which should be out in late September) but you can use your morning and afternoon body temperature to help monitor your thyroid/metabolism. Try taking your body temperature first thing in the morning, and about 6 hours after you wake up. If you’re in the low 97′s or below… that’s a good sign you’ve got metabolic damage.

      Be prepared to possibly pick some weight back up as in you increase your calories (this doesn’t always happen, but it’s possible).

      And next time you decide to lean out, make sure you give yourself re-feeds occasionally! =) Hope this is helpful!

  4. Diana Daivs says:

    I just can’t get my head around doing less cardio. I WANT to believe. It would be so much EASIER if I did. But I can’t. I love my spin classes, and I do 3-4 a week. I also use the precor after weights for about 40 min to half an hour.

    I just can’t open my mind to accept that I could lose by doing less.

    • molly says:

      Diana,

      It’s hard! The one thing I usually ask people who have a hard time giving up their cardio addiction is, “How’s that working for you?” usually it’s not working well or they would not have asked my advice in the first place. Sometimes it’s the wake up call they need to make changes. Also, sometimes you will experience some initial fat gain…. but if you’re training heavy, eating well, managing your stress properly, and getting enough sleep… chances are it will come back off and then some and you will look better than ever. Have faith my friend!

  5. Heather says:

    My question is about getting hormones checked. I got my thyroid checked this year because I felt like something funky was going on with my body. They said my thyroid tested “normal”, but I didn’t get any numbers. I would love to get my hormones checked to see what’s going on there, but what do I ask for specifically and is there any information you can give me prior to getting checked that will help me get the most bang for my medical buck?

    • molly says:

      Heather,

      The first thing I would suggest is to see an Integrative or Functional Medicine Doctor. That’s your best bet. They tend to look at the root cause of the issue and help you resolve that instead of putting a Band-Aid over your problem. Also… “normal” is complete CRAP! You don’t want “normal” you want OPTIMAL.

      If I were like the “normal” American I would be overweight, in an unhappy marriage, broke, hating my life and my job, and just just biding my time until I die. Does that sound like any fun to you? ME NEITHER!

      Unfortunately you can be on the crap-end of normal and most Docs won’t do anything for you. That’s why I recommend seeing a Doc who will find the root cause of the problem. Of course, not every Integrative/Functional Doctor is fantastic… but your chances of getting a good one are much higher than that of a conventional Doc.

      This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s helpful: http://www.functionalmedicinedoctors.com/

      Good luck!

    • Julie Helscher says:

      I just want to echo this sentiment and also add that if u feel that something is wrong, keep asking. My thyroid levels were normal also, but my symptoms said differently. I finally found a dr. who checked my antibody levels. Normal range = under 35, my count was 1000, well on my way to Hashimoto’s. Thanks Molly for this post, especially the last bit, it’s a great go to list when I get scattered and need to remind myself what I’m supposed to be doing.

    • Sarah says:

      My husband is a physician. He would not tweak my thyroid because I had normal numbers — until he had a patient of his tell him how much better she was doing since she begged her primary care doctor to tweak her thyroid even with normal numbers. My husband is just careful. Anyway, she lost weight, regained hair, and increased her energy. The most important thing you can do to protect your healthcare dollar is to FIRST find a physician who understands and believes in subclinical thyroid treatment — treating people who feel something is off, but their thyroid numbers are in the normal range.

      That physician then will put you on a low dose of thyroid meds and slowly increase it, checking your thyroid levels about every six weeks. Ask your prospective doctor what s/he thinks of the recent writings about subclinical thyroid treatment.

  6. kia says:

    I am so glad that someone posed this question! I had been stressing over the same thing for several weeks now. I lost 42 pounds via eating clean, kettlebells and barbells. I now weigh 126 at 5’1″ and my belly doesn’t seem to be budging, at least not fast enough. I lift heavy and am obsessed with all things kettlebell. But I know I need to schedule in hill sprints (the only cardio besides swings that I actually enjoy) more consistently and get stricter with eating clean. I’m just glad that I’m not the only one who has lost a significant amount of weight but is still struggling with belly fat.

    • molly says:

      Nice work Kia!

      Yep! Consistency is key! And often time focusing on performance goals instead of aesthetic ones will help you stay sane (and the aesthetics often follow the performance!)

      Keep on truckin’ and You’ll get there!

  7. Lindsay says:

    Ok so a few questions. I am struggling to lose the last 5-8 pounds of fat. Basically I want to lean out. I have cut all grains except Ezekiel bread and oats. But I love dairy. I could live off Greek yogurt. And fruit. I am training for a marathon right now (very early stages) and need to eat about 2100 calories a day and that’s with a 20-25% cut. I STRUGGLE to find not only enough different foods to eat but actually be able to ingest that many calories of just meats an veggies. Like I can’t physically eat that much of just those things. I have been getting my extra calories from the grains and dairy. Any advice? Oh and I love to run and only train 4 days a week : ) I strength train full body 2 time a week and do yoga those days too. 1 complete rest day a week. Thanks!

    • molly says:

      Lindsay,

      It sounds to me like you may have to step back and decide what’s most important to you… do you want to run marathons or do you want to focus on losing your last few lbs and being really lean?

      As the old saying goes, you can’t ride 2 horses with 1 arse. =)

      That’s not to say that running marathons and being lean are 100% mutually exclusive, but it’s pretty rare to find an amateur (i.e. non-professional) marathon runner that’s curvy, well-muscled, and lean like Alli Mckee (who is a freak of nature).

      Same thing with your nutrition (at least in the short-term). Do you want to eat lots of fruit, dairy, and oats… or do you want to be lean?

      Again, they are not 100% mutually exclusive, but if that’s what you’re doing now and you aren’t reaching your goals, that should tell you something. And keep in mind once you’re pretty lean and just maintaining, you can get away with more carbs and possibly more dairy products.

      As for not being able to stomach that much meat… I understand. Protein shakes are a fantastic way to get your protein without having to eat so much daggone meat. This is my favorite brand (sweetened with Stevia!). Keep in mind that this IS an affiliate link, but I have been approached by multiple supplement companies and have turned them down because I didn’t believe in their product.

      http://maximushealthandwellness.getprograde.com/protein-powder.html

      I like to have my clients give me their #1 goal + an “It would be nice if…”

      For example: “I REALLY want to lose 8 lbs of body fat and it would be nice if I could maintain my strength while doing so.”

      That way you can design a program with a goal in mind, and the person won’t be trying to achieve goals that are mutually exclusive or close to it.

      I wish I could tell you what you want to hear… =( But I am sure you would prefer advice that will help you reach your goals, so that’s what I will give you instead!

      Hope you find this helpful!

  8. Alexandra says:

    Hi Molly, great info here!

    I’m curious about #6 and not needing as much protein if you engage in intermittent fasting. Can you expand a bit on that – the why/how of it?

    6. Have at least 1 gram of protein per lb. of body weight. It’s possible to get away with less, much less even… (especially if you engage in intermittent fasting, I’ve noticed), but this is still a good general rule of thumb as most women don’t eat nearly enough protein.

    • molly says:

      Alexandra,

      At this risk of sounding silly… no I can’t. =) I actually mentioned on my FB yesterday that if someone asks a question you don’t know the answer to, DO NOT MAKE SOMETHING UP! =)

      To be honest, it’s more empirical evidence than anything. I know I was chatting with Jay Feruggia one day and he told me that his wife Jen Grassor Feruggia only eats 60-80 grams of protein at night with her big meal, and I would bet she probably doesn’t eat a ton during the day since she follows an intermittent fasting protocol. When I was following the Modified Warrior Protocol, I was only eating about 60-90 grams a day at 165 lbs and I maintained my lean mass like a champ. I know Nia Shanks and Marianne Kane only eat 2 (MAYBE 3) meals a day, and I would doubt they get more than 90 grams in each day and they both weigh in the 120-s.

      It seems like intermittent fasting and the nutrient timing that inherently happens due to nutrient timing allows your body to better utilize the nutrients you give it? I would imagine you assimilate more of what you take in when you do eat if you fast for periods of time. That would be my best guess… but like I said, it was based solely on empirical observation.

      Hope my answer is still helpful!

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  12. Sammy says:

    A girl who’s never had abs, telling others what to eat, to get abs. Very interesting lol

    • molly says:

      Awww… Sammy… why u so mad?

      I am sure your other 16 year old friends on BB.com listen to your advice! hahaha…

      Have a great day babe! Thanks for reading and commenting! =)

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  19. Great advice. I cardio-ed (yes, I made up a word) my body to death in years past, thinking, I had to do abs every day, twice a day. It took sooooo long to get results. Now, I have visible abs almost every single day (not so much after a weekend of too many drinks) just lifting heavy and building muscle and eating a ton of food. Granted, my foods now only consist of meat veggies and healthy fat. I agree with everything you said 100%!!

  20. Noriko Major says:

    This is possibly the best article I’ve read to date on the allusive “abs”. Thank you for providing clear and simple guidelines.

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  22. Does #4 mean that there’s no way I can train for long distance running events and ever hope to have a flat belly? :( Or perhaps I can compensate for it by being better at the others? [although I think I'll have to quit my job to improve on the sleep and cortisol pieces...geesh...no wonder I've got paunch!]

    • molly says:

      TT,

      I don’t want to say “never” but if you’re training that way and it’s not giving you the physique results you desire, you may want to consider changing what you’re doing.

      If you LOOOOVE distance running, try all of the other suggestions first, and then give up your running as a last resort if the other changes don’t work.

      Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! Good luck! =)

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  24. John says:

    Hi, I’m a seasonal swimmer for my school and I’ve been out of season for about 4 months. I have been running like crazy and lose some weight but nothing like swimming and the amount of fat I lost in my ab section when I swam was crazy!! But now all the fat in my body has came back to my stomach even though i run and I can’t kick it, what would you suggest doing to get abs and lose weight because I think my metabolism is messed up.

  25. Ashleigh says:

    Question on the article, in cutting out grains, do you mean all grains, or specifically gluten (wheat, rye, barely) Would Quinoa and oats be acceptable? And do you have advice for people who are vegetarian for religious reasons? I love lifting, but often, the nutrition part becomes a challenge from the vegetarian perspective. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated!

  26. Melissa Marquardt says:

    Heavy lifting 3x per week … I’m assuming you are recommending full body circuits? My other question is in your general recommendations for calorie intake, do you still use those numbers for someone who is 50+ pounds overweight, looking to lose? It still seems like a high caloric intake for someone, for example: 220 lbs looking to lose 30-50 pounds. Just curious. And thanks again for an informative, yet simple post!

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